Lauren Bacall gives Humphrey Bogart some side eye and he grins. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan argue about orgasms at Katz’s deli. Yammering Paul Newman talks a mostly silent Robert Redford’s ear off in the wild west in the late 1800s. Basically, two characters come together as partners on screen and if we’re lucky, their interactions and friction produce this happy spellbinding effect.
We call it chemistry, but often in the business of creating movies and television we treat it like it’s magic… as if it’s elusive and very difficult to conjure and we shouldn’t talk about it too loudly because we don’t want to squelch the enchantment.
Here’s a question for you.
What if we treated chemistry as what it is?
That is to say, a science.
The physical science of chemistry focuses on the properties and change of matter. Two substances are put together to create a chemical reaction. Their interaction transforms them together into a new substance.
Chemists create and study new substances by following a written formula, i.e. two hydrogen atoms put together with one oxygen atom create water (H2O).
What if we looked at screenwriters as chemists whose job it is to experiment and lay out a formula for the director to follow with actors?
People often define acting as reacting, which hints at its chemical nature. With a proper formula, actors—like elements—can come together to create a new and thrilling substance.
Just as there are endless ways to combine elements on the periodic table for a reaction, there are endless ways to combine different characters.
Professions, genders, races, classes, attitudes, ages, places of origin, abilities, modes of speaking—the list goes on and on. If you put together people who reside on opposite ends of any kind of spectrum, odds are they’ll complement each other in some way to create a satisfying kind of traction and momentum as they mitigate their differences and transform into something new. Think of one character as hot and one character as cold. When they join forces, they make a balmy breeze that we can’t get enough of… or perhaps they’re carbon and oxygen, combining to make something deadly and destructive, but still captivating to watch.
If you’re studying chemistry, you study the work of Marie Curie, John Dalton or Louis Pasteur. If you’re a screenwriter, you study how Nora Ephron, Spike Lee or William Goldman lay out character and story elements in a formula on the page.
It’s with these ideas in mind that I make my script recommendation this week. I’m excerpting a few pages from 1949’s Adams’s Rib, written by husband-and-wife writing team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, then eventually acted by the ultimate partners in chemistry, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
This is an earlier draft of the script, written before the characters’ names were changed to Adam and Amanda, respectively. In the movie, they’re both lawyers. She’s a well-spoken “We-can-do-it!” kind of woman and he’s a by-the-books, meat and potatoes (or is it po-tah-toes?) kind of guy. As the story goes on, they find themselves as prosecutor and defense attorney for a case in which a woman has attempted to murder her husband. The case draws their principles into direct conflict with one-another.
This is the first scene in which we see the two characters interact. Notice their cross objectives and tactics. They’re both looking for information. She would rather read it in the paper. He would rather get it out of her.
Down to the nuance in the spelling of the characters’ nicknames for each other (Pinky vs. Pinkie), the script for Adam’s Rib proves that chemistry can very much be written before it is played.
You can read more about Adam’s Rib writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin on the last page of the newest addition of the WGA’s Written By Magazine, which features another husband-and-wife writing team Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon of The Big Sick on its cover. If it’s not out at the point of your reading this, it will be soon.
Find great examples of chemistry-oriented writing in The Big Sick script and these other titles at the library on your next visit:
His Girl Friday. Screenplay by Charles Lederer based on the 1928 play The Front Page by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur.
Out of Sight. Screenplay by Scott Frank based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.
Thelma & Louise. Written by Callie Khouri.
You’ve Got Mail. Screenplay by Nora Ephron & Delia Ephron based on the play “Parfumerie” by Nikolaus Laszlo.